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Society, Politics & Law
  • Video
  • 5 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Protest Banners: Trade Union

Updated Friday 16th March 2018

Dr. Paula James looks closer at the use of a Trade Union banner and the strong statements it conveys. 

Trades Union banners and membership certificates have a rich visual history. The banners and certificates (the latter proudly displayed like paintings in workers' homes) might be designed by Royal Academy artists and were monumental in their structures.  They tended to be packed full with classical symbols, biblical scenes and quotations, celebrating the history of the craft, and drawing upon the emblems of freemasonry and friendly societies.

The TGWU banner is part of that heritage but its red and green background is displaying the colours of conflict. This harks back to a very different kind of banner, the 1889 Dockers' strike banner which used the same design to frame a picture of a Hercules style muscle man wrestling with a snake. The image is modelled on some high end culture, the renowned sculpture by Lord Leighton of an athlete struggling with a python.

In 1889, the dockers were conducting a fight against the poverty caused by casualisation and the lack of a living wage (they demanded the Dockers' tanner) and the words on the ribbon read 'we shall fight and we shall win until all destitution and prostitution are swept away.' The serpent is the serpent of capitalism and the hero is a hard working but unskilled labourer. The craft unions around the dockyards made common cause with the strikers and the Catholic church got involved on their side. The Australian wharfside workers sent money to the strike fund.  Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl Marx, revolutionary philosopher) taught several of the strike leaders to read!

So, though it might look as if, 30 plus years later, the Dockside branches were beaten back down, the 1920s banner does portray a strong well set up worker, a worthy heir to those who struggled to have a bigger share of the profits they created for the empire back in the 19th century. The 1920s docker is centre of a scene which shows that the aspiration to culture and education was very vocal and very much alive.

You can find many other examples of Trade Union banners and membership certificates in the online archives of the People's History Museum in Manchester and the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. You can also read Annie Ravenhill-Johnson's work on Trade Union emblems in The Art and Ideology of the Trade Union Emblem 1850-1925 (Anthem press 2014). 

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